Saving a Species

Baby Koala

WILD KOALA BREEDING GETS THE GREEN LIGHT

Koala Conservation Australia (the organisation behind The Port Macquarie Koala Hospital) has embarked on an ambitious project to reverse Australia’s rapidly declining koala populations: the first wild koala breeding program in the world!

Why is it the first?  It may be because the process of earning the license to breed wild koalas is a very long, arduous, and expensive ordeal which takes a considerable amount of resources.  Not many wildlife conservation organisations have the human or financial resources to put behind to such an endeavour.

Koala Conservation Australia (KCA) embarked on this journey 18 months ago and has been doggedly refining plans and procedures developed to work towards reversing the decline in koala populations on the mid cost of NSW. A detailed proposal was then scrutinised by an ethics committee which either gave the proposal the go-ahead or asked for further explanation and detail … which they did…three times. Patience and resolve are clear necessities.

Finally, in February 2022, the ethics committee passed the proposal on to the Department of Planning & Environment which then granted the permit.

So, how do you begin such a program?  You start with some healthy ‘founders’: the initial animals chosen for breeding ahead of the 2023 breeding season. And how do you find them? Thanks to modern technology, the wild koala breeding program will be utilising drones, courtesy of Professor Ryan Witt and his drone survey team at Newcastle University.  Drones are sent up overnight (between 6pm and 2am) to spot wildlife and pinpoint their location.  Once locations have been established, those sites are investigated (a process known as “proof point” which determines if the wildlife caught on infrared camera is a koala or another species), and koalas are tracked.  Scats are collected and tested for disease and DNA analysis.

These sites need to be relatively disease-free and have genetic diversity to give the best possible outcomes: in this scenario, Koalas are more resistant to disease and are more likely to breed well. Then the matchmaking begins! Taronga Conservation and the Australia Museum will assist in searching for ‘mates’ who will produce genetically strong offspring. Some animals will come from Koala Hospital admissions, others will be collected from identified populations in those proven sites.

A purpose-built facility west of Port Macquarie will accommodate up to 100 koalas.  Enclosures are designed for two methods of breeding:

  1. Harem: which involves five females in a large enclosure and one male
  2. Pair Wise: one female and one male. This method is used when it is more critical to closely observe genetics.

Regardless of the method, the breeding situations are all structured to meet the highest welfare and scientific specifications.

New joeys will be equipped with tracking collars and tagged before being released into optimal locations where they will be monitored to find out if wild populations start to breed naturally.  If natural population growth is achieved, the breeding program will “leave them to it” and continue work in another location.

Construction of the new breeding facility is now underway at the Guulabaa (Place of Koala) Precinct in the Cowarra State Forest between Port Macquarie and Wauchope with the goal of completion by mid-2023.

Long-time koala advocate and clinician, Cheyne Flannagan, is heading up the wild koala breeding program and has said that at the end of the five-year program, the data will be made available which can then be used as a template for other breeding programs.

Partners: Taronga Conservation Society Australia, The University of Sydney, The Australian Museum

Ancillary partners: University of Queensland, and the Australian National University which greatly assisted with the understanding of koala micro-biomes and their relationship with the country they inhabit. (That is, the relationships between leaf and nutrition, soil type and health)